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American Experience: Panama Canal — Gateway to the American Century (DVD Review)

7 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 2/8/11
$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

The raw figures after the Canal was completed were $350 million (the largest federal expenditure up to that time), 5,000 human deaths plus the fatalities of who knows how many mosquitoes and their larvae. The last was an attempt to eradicate the yellow fever that was the most serious obstruction to a project that had already licked the French.

For decades, that thin-waisted Isthmus of Panama had dangled a fantasy for world travelers — just like going to the moon. If you could somehow construct a path between the seas (the description that gave David McCullough his title for the definitive book on the subject), it would be possible to journey from, say, New York to San Francisco without having to wave to some guy on the shore in Capetown. But even leaving aside control of the Panama Canal Zone — which Teddy Roosevelt’s U.S. finagled less with military combat than greased palms — there were still a few incidentals like jungles, snakes, a turbulent river that was always flooding, landslides, an ever replenished labor pool that looked like a couple thousand of Cecil B. DeMille’s most expansive crowd scenes and, again, those mosquitoes.

A lot of “American Experience” presentations run an hour, but certain of them go to 90 minutes or even two hours. This expert telling is in the 90-minute range, which is mandatory — if only to give a sense of time of a project that spanned 1904 to 1914, a time frame that, no pun intended, merely represents the American experience. Before that, the French had seemed to have the right man with the right resumé for the job: Ferdinand de Lesseps (with help, of course) had built the Suez Canal, no paltry feat itself. But in that previous case the land was flat in a desert climate — not exactly the agitated swamp that faced this new project.

De Lesseps was destroyed by the elements and died a broken, gone-bonkers man — one who barely avoided a prison sentence due to the bribery and graft involved during France’s construction debacle. Roosevelt then put his own prestige on the line because in his own forward-thinking “Teddy” way, he knew that whichever country controlled the Canal (assuming it could be built) would become a world power — or make that “the” world power. In what then marked the first time a sitting U.S. president ventured outside the country for an official visit, Roosevelt even went to the Canal Zone to cheerlead the project, though Woodrow Wilson was president (after the sandwiched-in Taft Administration) when it was completed.

This rendering uses illustrations, photos and, from the final stages, even early moving pictures to tell this incredible story. Side (but hardly tangential) issues touched upon are: railroad construction that made it possible to haul away all the dug-up dirt; the building of a necessary dam to lick the flooding issue; the racism involved in the treatment of the project’s massive West Indies work pool; and the brainstorm of the “locks” system that made success possible — an amazing engineering feat in and of itself.

We also get the usual array of nuggets that one always finds in these historical “American Experience” chronicles. My favorite concerns Dr. William Gorgas, thought by some to have been a crackpot when he correctly embarked on a campaign to kill the mosquitoes he thought responsible for yellow fever — and the attempts by certain higher-ups to remove him. One of these gents tried instead to get a personal friend put in charge, which you have to think might have changed the course of history. The guy was a chiropractor.

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